Behind Flight Centre’s data-driven digital marketing efforts

Head of digital media and analytics shares the story behind bringing direct marketing in-house and how personalisation is helping the travel retail on the path to purchase

Bringing email marketing in-house is not only helping Flight Centre improve its speed to market, it’s also the trigger for a more insights-led approach to customer communications.

The travel retailer’s head of digital media and analytics, Dwayne Birtles, told CMO the company had been using an agency to run its email programs but found the time between briefing and market launch too long.

In addition, the breadth of communications across silos often left customers with a disjointed experience. Across the Flight Centre leisure business, he cited a desire to connect and centralise all communications, from marketing to service messages from a consultant and real-time travel alerts and updates.

Birtles oversees 22 employees working across four teams: Analytics; website and digital marketing campaign development; performance media excluding programmatic; and what the group calls ‘digital direct marketing’, incorporating B2C communications such as email, push notifications and SMS in future.  

To bring direct email marketing in-house, the company rolled out Salesforce Marketing Cloud. The main reason was gaining speed to market, Birtles said. Given the volume and scale of Flight Centre’s communications, getting to market quickly can mean millions of dollars every year.

“Our audacious goal is to get tactical out across all digital channels in 45 minutes,” Birtles said, noting the average time with an agency had been two to three days.

“That feedback loop is one of the biggest killers. If you don’t have that proper operations line, or if it’s not done right, the business will fail. By taking the agency out of the feedback loop, we can save a huge amount of time,” he said.  

This is helping Flight Centre get deals out faster than ever before. “We have what we call ‘P1s’, which are our hot deals, such as a $999 Virgin Atlantic, round-the-world fare,” Birtles said. “We need to get these out as fast as possible… being close to the product marketing, tech, consulting and customer, we can deliver with a team right next to brand marketing and creative. That was the immediate big win.”

The second thing Flight Centre has been looking to achieve is more customer data-fuelled programs. “There’s no doubt about it – customer data is key,” Birtles continued.

“But how we get insights from that and mine the data well? A person can’t mine a million data points, and that’s where we see Salesforce Einstein helping us in future. We are taking steps to use that functionality as we need AI to make sense of that data and give marketers as well as consultants recommendations.”

Related: How Flight Centre uses video and content to build customer relevancy

How Flight Centre is mapping out a new kind of customer journey

How Flight Centre’s B2B teams harnessed marketing automation

Uniting in-store experience and digital communications

Currently, Flight Centre is executing marketing communications activities internally by utilising subscriber and customer data, such as a consumer’s high propensity to go to Bali every year, for example.  

Another key focus is connecting the dots between in-store experiences across its 900 locations nationally, and digital communications. To do this, Flight Centre is increasingly tapping in-store data to drive personalised email messaging.

“There are customers who aren’t subscribers, so we’re looking at how we make their experience more seamless from brand and consultant to customer,” Birtles explained. “We have 5000 consultants across the Flight Centre business, and it’s also about helping them do their jobs more easily.”

One such live program is ‘quote support’. This sees consumers who’ve gone in-store for a trip quote but not converted sent automated reminders featuring their personalised consultant.

“We make the consultant the hero and have a click to call in the email direct to them. And there’s an email function with the quote ID there, so consultants can bring up the quote immediately,” Birtles said.  

“We’ve also just cc/d all consultants, so they see the email communications going out. We asked for feedback initially about whether to put consultants on or not, given the number of customers in quote state. But through that process, the consultant can understand exactly what the customer is getting and have an informed conversation with them.”  

Birtles is also looking to further understand high propensity in order to decide which destinations to serve select customer segments. In addition, Flight Centre builds cross-sell campaigns based on a customer booking on a longhaul flight to Europe, for instance, prompting them about insurance, the group’s TravelMoney offering, or booking accommodation.

“It’s about generating personalised activity based on your product composition as well.  That will provide a huge amount of value for us,” Birtles said, adding this program is due out in the next six months.

“We can input that very quickly into Salesforce then execute… that audience targeting layer is so much faster to access by having the technology internally.

“Another win has been around security considerations and transferring customer data. Previously, we’d have to talk to legal, and debate that. We’ve brought down some of those barriers internally because there’s confidence in the in-house platform.”

It’s clear to Birtles the opportunities are enormous. “We want to deploy so many journeys over the next six months, and I’m trying to get resources focused on those programs now,” he said.

“We’ll always do standard sends; the reason we have 95 per cent brand recall is because of that mass reach. A $999 airfare is topical no matter whether you book it or not. But when it comes to the automation layer for mass marketing versus targeting, we need to find the balance.”

Cultural change

The technology didn’t come without cultural change, and Birtles said his team previously hadn’t built or designed email templates. “Culturally, training and getting people to want to do that in-house was another step for us,” he said.  

“We’ve largely focused on organic upskilling, although we did bring in an email designer with more development experience to make our programs better.”  

Alongside the direct marketing platform investment, Flight Centre’s data-driven marketing efforts are seeing Birtles’ team overhauling the retailer’s market mix modelling approach over the next 12 months.

“We’re looking realistically and closely at how everything from our radio, TV to paid search is going,” he said. “Our business is still using a last-click attribution model, which is madness. Yet it’s hard in a business to tell someone how data-driven attribution is approached, and it’s different in every business too. So getting a clear understanding across the business on how we attribute success, and partial recognition, is a challenge in itself.”

Flight Centre has also been out to tender for a demand-side platform, choosing The Trade Desk solution. For Birtles, the overarching aim is to harness communications across the “path to travel”.

“There are so many challenges people have in getting on a trip,” he commented. “So how can we use information we have historically to help remove some of the noise and make recommendations on where to go and how to get there? And that whole dreaming phase – how can we use the tech to analyse and execute to make it that bit easier for customers? Or when they go to pay?

“Then when you’re about to go on your trip, it’s about the soft stuff. That’s what develops loyal customers.”  

Customer insight

Helping Flight Centre get there is a customer analytics team that’s created a model with high accuracy on the intent for someone to convert to a booking.

“I’m also excited about looking at what product customers have inquired on and then been quoted for, the lead time between quote and departing for their trip, whether they’ve asked for multiple quotes, how many people are going and what product they are booking,”Birtles said. “You can build 100 journeys from that before you even look at the website.”

Simultaneously, the website is a key way of understanding intent, and Flight Centre is working to stitch online to offline.

“That’s where something like AI can help us identify those points in the customer journey and see the patterns. Then we can look to… start personalising that website experience based on those inputs,” Birtles said.

“If you have inquired on Bali or Thailand but we know 10 per cent end up going to Europe, for example, we can start providing those people with recommendations on Europe.”  

Because it’s become clear Flight Centre isn’t just competing with direct travel retail competitors anymore.

“We’re competing against the best experience in the world, regardless of category,” Birtles concluded. “Customer expectations are so high, we need to firstly keep up with it, and prioritise it. That’s where we get the repeat and loyal customers, without doubt.”  

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